- Associated Press - Monday, April 25, 2016

HONOLULU (AP) - With less than a week to go before Hawaii is scheduled to announce the names of the state’s first medical marijuana dispensary owners, lawmakers are considering a bill to clarify gaps in the dispensary law passed last year.

Hawaii lawmakers discussed a bill during a hearing Monday that would clear up tax problems and give certain nurses the ability to recommend medical marijuana for patients. It would also allow for inter-island transport of medical marijuana for laboratory testing and make rules for what kind of marijuana products could be sold in dispensaries.

Marijuana business owners can open pot shops soon as July 15, but industry experts say they could be confronted with unique challenges in a state comprised of eight separate islands.

Right now, there’s currently a shortage of physicians willing to prescribe medical marijuana, so the component of the bill allowing highly-trained nurses could help increase patient access, said Wendy Gibson of the Medical Cannabis Coalition of Hawaii. Only 10 physicians have given her permission to share their contact information with patients, she said.

“This provider shortage is impeding patient access to this relatively safe and effective medicine,” Gibson said.

The proposed bill would also allow for inter-island transport for laboratory testing. Under the law passed in 2015, inter-island transport was banned, but all medical marijuana is required to be tested in a state-approved laboratory before it’s sold. Right now, there are no laboratories open in the state, and some worry that high startup costs and low patient numbers will prevent laboratories from opening on rural islands.

“It is extremely important that patients ingest their medicine free from contaminants,” said Andrea Tischler, of Americans for Safe Access Big Island Chapter. “Without labs to test the product, small samples need to be sent to other islands where there is a testing laboratory.”

The bill would also clear up a tax loophole that currently makes dispensaries eligible for tax breaks if they set up in enterprise zones, which were intended to incentivize business investment in areas with low income or high unemployment.

The Hawaii Department of Health is currently reviewing dispensary applications and plans to award licenses on April 29. Actor and marijuana advocate Woody Harrelson and video game designer Henk Rogers are among 59 Hawaii residents who have applied for licenses.

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